Berkley Sensation, $6.99, ISBN 0-425-20732-3
Historical Romance, 2005
Imagine this. You read a story featuring a heroine who is, according to the author, the brightest maths prodigy in the country. Chapter one sees the heroine getting ready to sit for her SAT exam. She turns to the first question. She realizes that she has to calculate the product of 2 and 6 and promptly collapses in a fit of nerves because she just cannot – do – it. Will you calmly turn the page, hoping that poor Little Miss Math Genius here will find a boyfriend who will solve the problem for her in time or will you toss the book out of the window and yell for the dogs sleeping on the pavement to eat that stupid thing?
I really hate to do this because I strongly suspect that if Samantha Saxon had featured any plot but the one in The Lady Killer in this book, I will be giving this book a very favorable review. It has all the ingredients of a good romance, with a very protective hero and a tormented heroine who tries to do the right thing. But unfortunately, the author declares from the start that Nicole Beauvoire, the Scorpion, is the best assassin England has in its war against France and Ms Saxon will insist on this even when the story is committing suicide, so to speak, by turning the Best Assassin Ever into a standard heroine who needs rescuing and most of her thinking done for her. In short, if Ms Saxon says that Nicole is a pretty average romance heroine – which is to say, pretty stupid, as usual – Nicole will be an acceptable heroine. But in this story, as the Best Assassin Ever, she is unacceptable.
She is unacceptable because the plot centers around her being a symbol of martyrhood and other jolly things that we pearl-clutching romance readers hold dear to our virtuous hearts instead of the Best Assassin Ever. Reading this book is like watching the heroine drive her car off the cliff straight into the sea while the author is telling me dramatically, “Omigod, the best driver in England forgot to switch gears and she’s now plunging to certain death. Isn’t this suspenseful, people? Oh my goodness, isn’t it sad how the poor dear suffered so hard all her life and now she may not find her happy ending? Am I not the best author ever?” Maybe some other reader will go, “Oh yes, that is so sad! Poor Nicole.” Me, I’ll be saying, “If that stupid chit can actually drive off the road into the sea while claiming to be the best driver in the country, that’s no great loss to humanity at all. Oh, and do me a favor, dear, ask someone to pinch you hard in the rear the next time you decide to tackle another spy plot because you just cannot do spies.”
In this story, in the first fifty pages alone, I see red so many times, I may as well be a bull in a matador ring. Nicole has just finished killing a Very Bad Guy in Paris, and she runs to a nearby boardinghouse to wait for her contact to get in touch with her. Oh, and she naturally cries buckets and laments about all those bad things she has to do to keep the world safe, so she’s really into pearl-clutching. Then she wakes up from her sleep when she hears a knock on the door. She happily walks to the door without a care, saying “What…” in English when she’s supposed to be a French lady, and gets caught when she realizes that it’s not her contact at the other side of the door. Since our Best Assassin Ever should realize that people will be hunting for the Scorpion, I really don’t know what to say about this horrifyingly stupid situation.
It gets better. Luckily for Nicole, the person at the other end is Daniel McCurren, forcefully ripped from his awkward and pointless insertion in the previous book The Lady Lies to star in his own story. Daniel correctly guesses that Nicole is English – the English spoken in an English accent may have something to do with it – but assumes that she’s the ladybird of Scorpion. You see, Nicole’s boss orders Daniel to liaise with Nicole and her contact in this Very Important Mission, but the boss neglects to mention that Scorpion is a woman. That makes sense. Why tell an untrained agent, whom you’ve sent on a vital mission to help the Best Assassin Ever escape a trap set by the French, the details of this person he’s supposed to meet and help escort to safety? Details are for losers. Let that spy earn his pay by making him figure out things by himself! Thanks to this mind numbingly stupid contrivance designed just to get Nicole and Daniel separated a little bit longer instead of happily taking off to England by page 50, the contact shows up dead. Naturally, Nicole suspects Daniel of the foul deed.
This story goes on and on until I feel like passing out from a burst blood vessel in my head. Daniel can successfully trail after the Best Assassin Ever and she has no clue that she’s being followed. The Best Assassin Ever doesn’t behave like a competent assassin at all in this story. Because Ms Saxon needs Nicole to be in danger, she often has Nicole just walking into danger and going oopsie. I’m not expecting Ms Saxon to turn into John le Carre or even Frederick Forsyth but there is a limit to my ability to suspend disbelief and having the Best Assassin Ever behaving more like the Biggest Dumbass Ever while constantly parroting to me that Nicole is the BEST ASSASSIN EVER!!! – this isn’t just suspending my disbelief, it’s forming a noose around my neck and making me choke like crazy.
What Nicole does very expertly in this book though are weeping and expressing all kinds of grief over her sad past and her current life. Oh, she was forced to be an assassin by circumstances as well as her own principles, and now she is hurting because she has to kill, ugh, ugh, ugh. Nicole’s pointless crusade for canonization and everything else that is wrong about this book can be summed up with this passionate declaration she offers to Daniel:
“Assassination is not murder. I kill to protect the innocent and helpless people of this country: people that have no one to champion them, people that are beaten, raped, and robbed every day that this war continues. How can I, how can anyone, watch men like Joseph LeCoeur abuse their power and just walk away?”
So, let me sum up the collective reasonings of Nicole and Miss Saxon in bullet points:
- England is at war with France, but that’s because England wants to save the poor downtrodden people in France from the rapists, robbers, and thugs.
- Nicole’s boss orders her to kill only the villains in this story, bless him. And bless Nicole and anyone else who are, er, “touched by God” to actually believe that line. Conveniently enough, these raping, beating, and robbing sons-of-dogs happen to be also high-ranking French officers. When it comes to pathetic plot contrivances, this cannot be beat.
- Nicole believes that what she does is right.
- And yet she feels self-loathing for having to kill people.
- But she insists that she has to keep being an assassin because the poor Frenchies need her to kill more rapists and thugs.
- At the same time, she desperately needs Daniel to understand why she has to kill. She wants desperately to be loved and be seen as a good woman!
- Even if, if we go by her logic, she’s actually doing the right thing. In fact, she’s supposed to be doing something that she believes in. So why does she hate herself for doing something that she believes in? There is something very wrong here, and I’m not just talking about the state of Nicole’s psyche that can only be eased with a heavy dose of sedatives and a regulated prescription of Prozac.
I need to lie down. I’d ask Nicole to come kill me and end my misery if I’m not certain that she’ll miss or worse, point a gun to my head and then promptly burst into tears while screaming at me to forgive her because she has to kill even if she hates it because the poor Frenchies need her to save them, ugh, ugh, ugh, until I scream back at her to pull that damn trigger so that I don’t have to listen to her or feel her tears dripping all over me.
The rest of the story is pretty predictable. Nicole will find all kinds of ways to become a bigger martyr while Daniel will get all puffed up in a “I’ll save you!” way, only he sometimes stumbles and Nicole will have another cross to bear on her dainty back.
As I’ve mentioned earlier, it depresses me to be writing this review because under any other circumstances, The Lady Killer would have been a slightly above average read, especially towards the denouement when everyone starts acting melodramatically in a very romantic manner when it comes to love. The bond between Nicole and Daniel is well-written and convincing. Unfortunately, nothing else about this story is even close to being convincing. The denouement is exciting, but it takes some pretty major cases of incompetency on both the parts of Nicole and Daniel to get there. In Daniel’s case, that’s fine, since no one in this story is claiming that he’s the best spy ever. But when it comes to Nicole…
And that’s the problem in a nutshell: Nicole. Ms Saxon claims that she’s writing about the best assassin in England but what she is really doing is instead writing about a martyr who could use some psychiatric help to sort out her victim complex. It’s pretty clear what Ms Saxon’s agenda is. When Nicole could have used her Best Assassin Ever skills to save the day, it is Daniel who ends up doing the dirty deed so that Nicole can weep piteously into Daniel’s shoulder with hands clean and conscience clear. The Best Assassin Ever weeping piteously… I shudder rather than sigh at that scene, I tell you, because that is the sorriest excuse of an emotional mess claiming to be the Best Assassin Ever. If Nicole is a sheltered merchant’s daughter who was forced to kill in self-defense and is now seeking a way out of Paris while Daniel is her rescuer, this story will work beautifully. But alas, Nicole is the best assassin England ever had.
Ms Saxon doesn’t just dumb down this story, she pretty much forces me to sit on a stool in the corner of the classroom and pushes a dunce cap over my head. Books like The Lady Killer make the best insult to my intelligence. It passes of characters with subpar skills as examples of eliteness in action and the entire plot is set up around that premise. I cannot get past that and therefore I cannot even read ten pages of this book without coming across at least three scenes that make me want to pull my hair and yell at somebody that good spies and assassins are never that incompetent or clueless. It doesn’t matter if Nicole is a stupid assassin who can’t even spot an amateur trailing after her or if she’s a world-class brain surgeon who faints at the sight of blood or if she’s the world’s best policewoman who trips on her high heels and sprains her ankle while trying to catch a one-legged blind thief in a dead end street. It’s all the same in the end: The Lady Killer only demonstrates that while Ms Saxon can write, she cannot put together a decent espionage story at all.